Photos by Marrz Capanang

Baylehan in My Mind

By kristine buenavista

Nobody danced alone. The only compasses we had in those evenings: the distant sound of the live ‘combo’ and the light-giving of the moon.

I remember how it felt – the texture of my favorite bestida, the moist lipstick, and the stories only my pair of high-heeled shoes could tell. When you wanted to go to the baylehan, you had to look your best. Earlier that day, my friends and I invited each other (as we usually did). “Ti karon, ha? Indi ako maglakat kung wala ka! [Later, okay? I won’t come if you’re not there!]”

In the dark, we’d walk fearlessly. When new voices and sounds were from behind us, we felt happy that more and more people were heading to the baylehan…with us. I sometimes feel sad that these days, it could mean a very different thing.

karaoke machine in barotac nuevo- Project Iloilo
Photo by Marrz Capanang

The baylehan offered more than dancing; it was a small, intimate space shared by so many people from all ages and walks of life. How could I ever forget how the baylehan looked like? It was made of amakan, a dusty floor, and beautiful lights made of stars and bulbs. Outside, you could find tables for snacks and refreshment. The combo played sensuous music – chacha, rumba, tango, and waltz. Live music gave me this sense of freedom and community. The combos—Santos-Lopez from Barotac Nuevo, Butterfly from Iloilo City, and Jopet Band from somewhere in Capiz—played real, passionate music, The loud music we have in our diskohan now is nothing in comparison to back then.

I remember the lady-vocalist of Jopet Band. She looked ordinary, but the moment she opened her mouth and showcased her grace, I knew she is giving me the greatest bayle of my life. Then the moment a man takes my hand for a dance, my heart would skip a beat, for it would mean many wondrous things: the chance to connect, to have fun, and to just dance. I know for others, it was a moment of meeting a lover; a future husband. I felt the baylehan was a place of community rather than that of desire.

As the beautiful beats of rumba echoed in the night, your hand could get held by an older man for an invitation. We never cared. It was more of a bond. I believe that when a hand was stretched to reach mine, it was an effort to get to know each other – a linkage between ages. No one danced alone. Everyone danced with someone – a friend, a sibling, a stranger.

old woman searching in a shoebox - Project Iloilo
Photo by Marrz Capanang

This is why I keep my favorite tracks. These cassette tapes are my only connection to those beautiful nights of dancing and socializing. These are my keepsake; my little windows whenever I want to crawl back to those easier days when we never checked our phones a lot or stayed indoors too much. We had each other. We shared songs, glee, movements, sweat, and stories.

Even World War II did not stop the baylehan I frequented. It remained the same: made of amakan, a dusty floor, and beautiful lights made of stars and bulbs. I remember how Japanese soldiers organized a folk dance competition and awarded the winning team with a sack full of brown sugar. I always remember.

engelbert humperdinck cassette tape - Project Iloilo
Photo by Marrz Capanang

And so, when I play these cassette tapes, each track reminds me of a certain someone. A certain wild dancer who would close his or her eyes to give in to the music. I remember each of them. How will I ever forget?

Those beautiful pair of pants and flowing bestidas. Those closed eyes. Those sensuous body movements which taught me how it was to be truly alive. Ah, they must be dancing blissfully somewhere else now, while I am still here in my old coffee shop dreaming of them, and how they spent those days and nights.

I just have to play these songs, and I am slipping on my favorite bestida once more, following the distant sound of the live combo and talking with good friends in hushed voices under the moon.

cassette tape player - Project Iloilo
Photo by Marrz Capanang

(Author’s note: This little story is inspired by the narratives of Shirley Regalado. She and her husband own a 30-year old, native coffee house. She turned 80 in February. Her wrinkled fingers touched the sides of her old cassette tapes after I asked her, “Nagabayle ka man ‘La sg una?[Are you going to dances back then, grandmother?]” She hides the tapes inside a shoe box, where she would regularly play it in the old, dusty karaoke in their coffee shop. When she tried playing a track, it would act up. She would fix the player a bit and would look at me with nostalgia and joy. She told me that sometimes, she still get goosebumps when she remembers vividly how Tatay Rudy and other town folks would dance vulnerably to a certain song.

She remembers everyone; every single dancer. She’s always a little bit sad of how the old times have faded away and how people are slowly disconnecting from each other because of fear and their obsession with being busy. She told me beautiful stories and I can’t help but be there where she was. I also got a little bit dreamy and sad, but when she held my waist and hand, my heart knew that sometimes, the world does stop to watch you dance.

“Dali diri bala. Kuno abi, ako ang lalake kag ikaw ang akon pares. [Come here. Let’s pretend that I am the male and you are my partner.]”

Kristine Buenavista is the Co-Founder and Self-development Program Facilitator of Alima Community. She is constantly stalking the slow life.